Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

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Forget Love

Man, does the internet suck these days. Seems like you can’t go two clicks without running into some hideous argument about vaccinations, corrupt politicians, or Ariana Grande. Grown people everywhere, lured by the siren song of social media, have fallen prey to Early Internet Syndrome: because their words might be seen online, they immediately consider themselves to be superstars. As such, they feel compelled to establish, and defend, their identities in the way that a company does its brands.

What’s that? Keep a private journal? Shit, man, that’s for old people. Nowadays, if you’re not airing your laundry from the battlements of your Facebook stronghold, you’re just not a proper citizen, dammit. Never mind that nobody cares but the few relatives who friended you out of nervous obligation. They, too, must be crushed if they dare opine against you. Cucks! Cucks, the whole lot of ’em!

So, in these hateful times, it’s good to know that there’s a place where folks of all stripes can still gather under one banner…even if that banner bears the logo of a ubiquitous soft drink. I’m being totally serious here: if you’re tired of the childish angst that pervades the net, just do what I do, and make a search for “Pepsiman.” It’s not soda that this superhero distributes — it’s joy.

I’m normally quite vehement in my hatred of superheroes. I’ve always found this nation’s obsession with Batman to be disconcerting, and today’s Cinematic Universes to be empty, formulaic, over-budgeted cartoons. Pepsiman, however, is something else. A late-90s commercial star with silver skin, no face, and a horrifying mouth, he always came a-runnin’ to deliver refreshing cans of Pepsi to parched, sweaty Americans.

This is strange because Pepsiman was created by PepsiCo’s japanese ad department. His spots only ran in East Asia, so they came off as weird commentaries on invasive U.S. corporatism.

That’s okay, though, because as shameless spokespersons go, Pepsiman is easily the company’s most successful. Fuck Britney Spears; nobody buys into that head-tilting, eye-rolling, pop-star bullshit. But give us a klutzy delivery boy who only wants to make dumpy guys in baseball caps smile, and I’m sold. He even has an awesome theme song with a surf-rock bass-line.

Pepsiman became a minor sensation in his day, spawning merchandise that included action figures, bottle toppers, and even a (quite good) PlayStation game. No joke! Believe it or not, it’s an automatic runner that’s a precursor to Temple Run. It also has hilarious FMV that maintains the kooky, nigh-misanthropic nature of the commercials.

Now here’s the best part: even though Pepsiman is nearly twenty years old, the peculiar style of his campaign was so knowing that the meme-hungry netizens of today absolutely adore him. Remember that YouTube video I embedded a few paragraphs back? Its comments are nothing but positive. I can’t find a shred of hatred in it, not even from Coke-drinkers. There are people expressing cheer and amazement, comments of “2019,” and jokes building on jokes. But most of all, there are people celebrating their love of the one-time digestive cure that is Pepsi. It’s really quite astonishing.

Indeed, the public has embraced Pepsiman as the anti-spokesperson: a figure who, like Duffman of The Simpsons, not only raises awareness of his brand, but somehow derides it. I won’t go into what Pepsiman says about the corporation that oozed over an ocean to bring him to life; I think the commercials do that better than I ever could.

The point is that we mustn’t lose heart: cultural fixtures and icons can bring us together, but only if they avoid taking themselves so damn seriously. I’m sorry to say it, Miss Jenner, but love doesn’t really conquer all. Sometimes, in order to accomplish something, you have to work with people you hate. The best way to do that is find a shared experience that we can all laugh about. If it’s a dopey corporate symbol who pushes an inescapable, mediocre product on us, so be it. Love is hard to find, but humor is everywhere.

Zen in the Art of Horse-Shit

Well, there’s one consistent thing about Rockstar’s most recent games: they’re markedly inconsistent.

Red Dead Redemption II has at least three buttons for context-sensitive actions (there may be more that I can’t remember). You pick up provisions by holding the X/Square button. You pick up weapons by holding LB/L1. You mount horses and take people into choke-holds by pressing Y/Triangle.

That last, calculated choice of controller setup caused me a couple of social faux pas that quickly developed into long elusions from the police.

There are a wide variety of care-taking activities in the game. Some are quick and automatic, while others are slow and laborious. Order some fried catfish at the saloon, and your character gobbles it down in a jump cut. Take a bath at the same saloon, however, and you need to mash three buttons to make him scrub each of his extremities, one at a time.

You interact with people, camps, and horses through menus at the lower-right of the screen. For people, these menus include options for robbing, friendly greetings, or masculine taunts. For camps, you can choose to sleep, cook food or craft items, or just leave. You can give horses tender pats, brush dirt from their hides, or feed them various vegetables. To actually perform some of these actions, you need only tap a button. To perform others, you must hold a button until a ring around the button icon fills. For some actions, the options differ from occasion to occasion, so pressing Y/Triangle will make you sleep for eight hours one night, and it will make you sleep for fifteen hours on another.

The game’s story missions involve a lot of horse travel, usually in the company of your gangster buddies. Sometimes, in the course of these trips, the game will draw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, meaning you can release the controller and just watch them talk and ride until they reach their destination. Other times, the game just keeps going, and you have to hold A/Cross and steer carefully while the characters talk and ride. If you don’t keep pace or follow the paths of your companions, they’ll yell and complain at you until you fall back in line. The game offers a “Cinematic Camera” for these situations, which helps keep your steed where it needs to be for the mission’s sake, but you still need to hold A/Cross for the duration of the ride.

The sum of this is that you simply cannot count on your character to do what you expect him to, without keeping vigil over the game’s prompts. The game involves a terrific amount of engagement and planning, in both the short and long terms. You can’t just gallop your horse through downtown Saint Denis, and then skid into the post in front of the barbershop. You might barrel over a pedestrian and wind up in jail over an assault charge. Besides, you need to position your horse just right, and then hold Y/Triangle for a couple of seconds to hitch it properly in the first place. No, no, you have to judge the road before you enter it, and then make your way along it with patience, just as you would in real city traffic. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind getting into a costly accident.

So, is all this just complaining? What do you think? The word “inconsistent” has a foul connotation, but I haven’t done anything other than describe the game’s details. When I began playing RDRII, I deemed its confusion as the mark of poor communication between a series of disparate design teams. Maybe that’s how it happened; I don’t know. Whether it was intentional or not, though, I find that I now appreciate it.

I rush through games nowadays. I was playing Skyrim a few days ago, when I felt exasperated at the repetitive combat, and the annoying characters who still gave me lip after I’d slain Alduin the World-Eater and saved their ungrateful butts. I asked myself just why in hell I was doing it. What, exactly, had compelled me to start the game up on that particular day? After some boiling, I got to the bones of my motivation, and discovered that I just wanted to get some of those god-damned entries off of my quest list.

When I manage my farm or explore a mine in Stardew Valley, I always fall into an efficient rut of behavior, always in pursuit of the most profitable wines, always seeking the next ladder to the unseen floors below.

Metroid games reward quick completion with images of Samus in varying degrees of nudity. People brag that they reached the final boss of Breath of the Wild within ten minutes of play. Online clubs devote themselves to speed-running. 

I understand that games are about goals, and that much of the joy of play is in building wise strategies to meet those goals. Of course you want a high score. Of course you want 100%-completion. Of course you want that rare achievement, so you find the quickest, most effective way to get it, and then you win. Right? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What RDRII is telling me is to slow the hell down. Its makers worked pretty damn hard to construct its world, and though it’s little more than a weaving of smoke, so is most of real life. Do you want to rush through that, too, without taking a moment to, you know, experience the moment?

Arthur Morgan’s actions, even in the chaos of combat, are all very deliberate. He saunters. He slurs. He peeks into chests and drawers with a languid, I-got-all-the-time-the-world casualness. Sometimes he doesn’t even act when you tell him to. Not immediately, anyway. He just isn’t a hurried man. He certainly doesn’t have the crisp, stimulated motion of a Black Ops character, I’ll tell you that. Now, you can scream at the screen about it if you want to, but if you just relax and have a little faith, you’ll see. Arthur’ll get to it. Sure.

The fascinating truth is that the button menus in this game force you to think about what you’re doing right now, not about what you’re going to do a few seconds into the conceptual future. They force you into the moment. Arthur’s ponderous nature keeps you there.

This might sound peculiar, but when I hear the creaks of Arthur’s footsteps, or the rustle of his coat, or the jingling of his horse’s bridle, I think about the miracle of my own movement. How the heck do I do it, anyway? Where does the will to move come from?

I think about the minor motions of simple, daily activities, and about the ripples they send into the void. Opening the cabinet, pulling down the coffee mug, lifting the sink lever, seeing the mug fill with ripples, waves, and bubbles. Moving the mouse, opening the software, clacking the keys to make symbols that others will interpret. I do this everyday, altering and expressing into the pattern at large, and I don’t even know how it’s done. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that tremendous? Isn’t that worth stopping to wonder about?

RDRII is full of beautiful things to look at. The trees, the birds, the horses, the horizons — they’re all strikingly depicted. But isn’t the real world infinitely more beautiful than a mere simulation? Isn’t a twenty-minute drive to work just as lovely as a twenty-second, imaginary horse ride? Isn’t the idea of controlling a magnificent contraption with incremental, reflexive motions, just extraordinary?

Then, when you arrive at work, you enter into a sea of people united in the process of providing for themselves, and for the community. You are involved in a thoughtfully devised social structure where everyone makes a difference, no matter how small. Everything you say to your co-workers changes them, and everything they do changes you. Just like when you greet or antagonize those random pedestrians on the muddy streets of Valentine, you’re adding to the pattern, expressing the process. All you have to do is…well, take the time to do it, and then watch what happens. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that empowering? Isn’t that worth living for?

So maybe they fucked up. Maybe Rockstar screwed a whole litter of pooches and didn’t wind up with the perfect product that Nintendo or Blizzard would have made. Maybe a wide part of their audience won’t like it, and the game will get a lot of flak for it. I like it, though. My time with Red Dead Redemption II has been one of the most Zen experiences I can remember, and it’s been very good for me. When you try it out, I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy it, too.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1971)

Here’s an animated adaptation that most folks aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about it until earlier this week. While considering the depictions of the supernatural in “Carol” adaptations, I found it curious that no animated special attempted to design the Ghost of Christmas Past as Charles Dickens devised it. Perhaps the animators felt beneath the challenge:

“It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.”

I decided to search through the multitude of “Carol” cartoons to see if any of them got it right. Well, it turns out that one did, and wouldn’t you know it? It was made by Richard Williams, the same man who would go on to direct the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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This adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1971, dares to illustrate Dickens’ story in a realistic style, which makes the supernatural elements all the more frightening. Just as Dickens wrote, Williams’s Christmas Past shifts shape and appearance, and leaves an eerie trail of afterimages in its wake. It moves and speaks in a flat, distant manner, and the effect is as disturbing as it is beautiful.

Oh, and speaking of disturbing:

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The contrast between the realistic living characters and the freakish specters works greatly to the cartoon’s benefit. It reminds me of the old John Hurt “Storyteller” programs that Jim Henson produced in the 1990s. Seeing the man behind the Muppets spin tales about death, devils and dragons created a thrill in me. I thrilled for a future in which genius creators such as Henson could graduate from children’s fairytales and tackle dark, grandiose epics. It never came to be, but it was nice to wonder at.

Williams’s “Carol” is born of that same desire, I believe, to pull the general view of cartoons away from the safe sweetness of Walt Disney. Indeed, this cartoon feels more like a the work of artists who wanted to experiment, to follow their own minds, to make something unfettered by stifling market-think. I daresay that the final result suffers a bit for this:  the cartoon is prone to navel-gazing, and even the most powerful moments from the book are made limp by the lingering direction.

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This is not a Top Cartoon, but I still think it’s worth your time. It is a marvelous, moving art exhibit made by folks who live to share their imaginations. It will show you things that you’ve never seen before, so I pray you won’t miss out.

Gently Down the….

Making cartoons takes a long time. I’d like to keep in touch with my fans somehow. I’m thinking of making some YouTube videos of the production process, but I was also thinking of something else.

Lately I’ve been pouring an hour or two into playing PC games each night, including Diablo III, The Sims 4, and Grand Theft Auto V. Why not use that time to record a Twitch stream? Of course, I’ll talk about the game, but I also think it’d be a good forum for discussion of other topics, such as art, animation, movies, game design, writing, etc.

I’ll be sure to notify you beforehand. I hope to see some of you! Of course, the channel name will be “lisvender.” Now I just have to find a convenient time to do the recording. Hope to see you online!

Games of the Year

Ah, video games. I love them and hate them. They seem like childish wastes of time one minute, and they’re engrossing adventures the next. I believe I’ve sworn myself off of gaming as often as I’ve come back to them. I hate the checklist-addiction  that many modern games substitute for fun now, and yet, I still think new games have smarter, more efficient design than old ones.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to go over the top five games that I enjoyed best this year. Keep in mind that only two of them actually came out in 2014, but if they’re on this list, it’s because they’re timeless.

#5, The Sims 4: A lot of folks complained about The Sims 4 when it came out. They bemoaned the divided neighborhoods, the load times involved in moving between lots, the lack of toddlers, etc. As someone who’s played The Sims since its first incarnation in 2000, I wasn’t surprised at this strip-down; every new game in the series cut out features that were added in expansions for the previous game. That sounds like it might suck, but every game introduced original concepts that made up for the loss, and I think The Sims 4 adds some meaningful new ideas that make it worth ditching The Sims 3 for.

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First of all, creating characters and building homes, two activities that felt a little too much like work in the past, is much more intuitive in 4 than in previous Sims games. You just grab what you want to change with your cursor and pull. It’s quick and it’s fun, which means that you can get to playing sooner. Live Mode has been overhauled; Sims generally move and respond more rapidly than they did in previous games, they can perform multiple actions at once, and the retooled UI is sleek and lovely. Maxis has finally succeeded in moving Needs to the back burner, too. Emotions are what matter now, and it’s a lot of fun to see the differences in your Sims’ demeanor as their moods shift. Depending on how they’re feeling, they’ll move, talk, gesture, and generally carry themselves in unique ways. Emotions also affect what they feel like doing, and what they enjoy. There are tons of surprising, emotion-based actions to find, as well. Sims who are feeling Flirty can bake heart-shaped cookies. Playful Sims can paint cartoon characters. Confident Sims can “Pee like a Champion,” and more.

I like that Maxis scaled things back a bit, and returned the game’s focus to the dynamics of the household. My only complaint is that if you get addicted to it, as I did, it might feel like the well of surprises dries out quickly. Sometimes I felt myself struggling to come up with new ideas for my Sims to play out. Still, I find it tough to stop playing it whenever I start, so it’s earned a place on this list.

#4, Soviet Strike: Boy, am I glad I kept my PlayStation 2, because it turns out there are tons of fun and fascinating PlayStation 1 games that I simply overlooked during the system’s heyday. Soviet Strike is one of them.

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Back in the 16-bit era, I read a lot about the Strike series of games for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it the Genedrive). I dismissed them because I completely misunderstood them: from the pictures, I expected them to be serious flight sims with complicated controls and slow-paced gameplay.

Man, was I wrong. Turns out they’re cousins to one of my favorite NES games, Solar Jetman. You pilot an assault chopper around massive battlefields, rescuing POWs, collecting fuel and ammunition, and blowing up everything else. The 16-bit games were still kind of slow, though. The explosions were weak-looking and poorly animated, the maps had few distinguishing landmarks, and there was no music during gameplay, so flying from one point to the next felt desolate. Even worse, the games had no HUD: you had to pause in order to check vital stats like armor, fuel and ammo. Not cool. When I first played Desert Strike on the Genedrive, I shook my head in disappointment. It was so close to greatness, and yet so far.

Soviet Strike, the first Strike game on the PSX, is something else though. The gameplay backbone was carried over, but improvements were made in several areas. The controls are more responsive than in the 16-bit games, your weapons have better aim, and the explosions look terrific. There are two camera settings, so you can play with the viewpoint centered behind your chopper now. There’s a HUD with all the important stats, but if it gets in the way, you can toggle it with a button press. And there’s music during gameplay now! When I started playing Soviet Strike, I couldn’t stop until I’d cleared every possible mission on the map. Then I wanted to jump into the next one. This game is the closest thing I’ve found to a Solar Jetman sequel, and that’s a big deal to me.

#3, Street Fighter Alpha 2: I grew up during the fighting game craze, so yeah, I’ve played this one before. Still, I never recognized just how gosh-darned good it is until this year. While all the one-on-one fighters around it made significant missteps, Alpha 2 just got everything right.

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Alpha 2 is a Capcom standard bearer. It has bright, eye-popping graphics (cleverly animated to maintain timing), catchy musical themes (none of the bland techno stuff like in Alpha 3), hefty sound effects (I still don’t know why Capcom stopped using those sweet smacking punches), and a variety of unique abilities that are always at your disposal (no ISMs or single Super Arts). I’m no expert at the game, and I can’t work a super move into a combo for the life of me, but I can just feel it when things are going right. The game is consistent enough that you can shift between planning and improvising, pressing the attack and breaking away in a flash. It’s not so crazy that you can’t tell what’s going on, and it’s not so advanced that newcomers won’t stand a chance at it. My only complaint is that the AI can be a complete cheap-ass. Still, when I want a quick gaming fix, Alpha 2 is the game I’ve been going to this year, so it makes the list.

#2, Diablo III Reaper of Souls: Like The Sims 4, D3 took a lot of flak from gamers for “dumbing down” the series. I don’t really understand this. Diablo was never a very smart game to begin with. You click monsters, monsters die. What’s to dumb down? The most common complaints I hear are that it takes too long to get unique items, the monsters are too easy, and that move choices are too limited early on in the game. “Too much action,” they said, “not enough RPG!”

I find it tough to care about these things, though, when the action looks and feels this good.

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That’s a typical scene from D3. There’s more shit blowing up and bodies flying around here than in most first-person shooters. Complainers say it’s all just so much bluster, but hey, I love bluster. Explosions, particles, rag dolls…I can’t get enough of it. That there’s a solid Action RPG beneath it, with fast-flowing combat, customizable moves, and endless randomized quests just sells me further. I’m very happy with the direction Diablo has taken, and if Blizzard keeps adding new features via patches, I can see myself playing it for yet another hundred hours. Still, as much as I love it, I can’t say it’s my favorite game of 2014.

#1, Medal of Honor: No, not the reboot. I mean the original on the PlayStation 1. The one that set the standard for World War II shooters with its objective-based gameplay, authentic weaponry, and superlative sound design.

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It looks pretty crappy by today’s standards, but Medal of Honor has an atmosphere that keeps it engaging. The starry nights, the clattering guns, the distant blasts and gunfire, they all just wrap around you and pull you into them. The “war room” menus are also quite cool. The game just does a terrific job of putting you amid the agony and intrigue of WWII Europe. The action is tense and methodical, but never frustrating or cumbersome. The controls are surprisingly modern, too; it’s built to play with a Dual Shock, and there’s a setting to play using the familiar move/look control setup we all know and love.

Medal of Honor walks the line between the exploration-based design of Doom and the scripted spectacle of Call of Duty, and I love it. In fact, I find this “middle ground” philosophy to be quite common among PSX games, and I really enjoy it. The PSX carried the soul of the 16-bit era that came before it, even while it tried on some of the trappings of the oncoming future. We got big, crazy games with detailed 3D worlds, but none of the obsessive-compulsive, subscription-based, online-only, multiplayer-focused, on-disc DLC, micro-transacted bullshit we have to deal with today. I think I’ll dig a little deeper into the PSX library to see what other gems I missed. Who knows? Maybe my whole top five for 2015 will be made up of what I find!